UCLA Halts Retaliation Against Whistleblower

LOS ANGELES, September 2, 2010—The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has temporarily halted its violations of the free expression rights of an environmental health sciences professor. The faculty of Dr. James Enstrom’s department refused to reappoint him after Enstrom engaged in successful whistleblowing against a member of the department—and after many years of disagreement between Enstrom and some of his colleagues over research on air pollution. After UCLA told Enstrom he was being let go because his controversial research failed to accord with the department’s "mission," Enstrom turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"For now, UCLA has granted Dr. Enstrom an eight-month reprieve while he seeks justice in his case," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "But UCLA still has a lot of explaining to do. How is it possible that environmental health research is outside the mission of the Environmental Health Sciences department?"

Enstrom has worked at UCLA as a researcher and professor since 1976, being rehired consistently each year. Since 2004, he has been rehired in UCLA’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS). Over the years, he and a few of his colleagues have sometimes disagreed strongly about research on environmental health issues—for example, on the extent of the threat to public health posed by certain air pollutants, a topic of Enstrom’s research which has been the subject of intense debate in California.

Enstrom also was a successful whistleblower whose activism led to fellow EHS faculty member John Froines being replaced on a panel for the California Air Resources Board. Several members of the panel had been serving beyond the three-year legal limit on their terms of office, and Enstrom’s whistleblowing provided part of the grounds for a lawsuit on the issue.

UCLA’s retaliation against Enstrom became apparent in December 2009, when he received a financial review of his various research funds. Enstrom discovered that UCLA had cut off his salary fund and charged his salary to his research funds without his knowledge or permission, causing his research funds to be overdrawn. Enstrom asked for but has not received a full accounting of UCLA’s disbursements of his funds.

Enstrom was not told about these changes until it was too late. In February 2010, Environmental Health Sciences Chair Richard J. Jackson informed Enstrom that since his research funds were overdrawn, UCLA was laying him off. Enstrom countered that UCLA had reasonable ways of resolving the issue, and UCLA officials appear to have abandoned this initial attempt at severing Enstrom’s employment.

On June 9, 2010, however, Enstrom learned of further retaliation after the EHS faculty (including Froines) voted not to rehire him because "your research is not aligned with the academic mission of the Department." The faculty also told Enstrom that he had not met EHS’ vague and previously unmentioned "minimum requirements." He was again "indefinitely laid off" effective June 30, 2010, but the layoff timeline violated UCLA’s policy requirement of 60 days’ notice.

"Because of Enstrom’s research and his activism against prominent advocates of stricter environmental regulations in California, UCLA seemingly has decided to silence him any way it can," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. "Had he kept his mouth shut, it appears that Enstrom would have had none of these problems."

Enstrom appealed on June 15. On June 30, Associate Dean for Academic Programs Hilary Godwin extended his appointment for 60 more days to August 30. Godwin also, without explanation, changed the action from a layoff to a non-reappointment. Enstrom appealed again on July 14, but on July 29 Godwin rejected his appeal. Godwin again cited Enstrom’s failure to properly align his research with the "mission" of his department.

Enstrom again challenged his non-reappointment, with a formal grievance on August 12 and a whistleblower retaliation complaint on August 27. Enstrom has consistently argued that his research on environmental health is fully aligned with EHS’ research mission of furthering "extremely interdisciplinary" research "at the interface between human health and the environment." He also has demonstrated that his research output has been robust.

FIRE wrote UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block on August 26, 2010, pointing out that it is unconstitutional to refuse to rehire a faculty member because of his protected expression.

On August 30, Enstrom learned in an e-mail from Associate Dean for Administration Kathleen Kiser that his appointment was again being extended to March 31, 2011, pending the outcome of his formal challenges regarding his treatment.

"In the absence of any evidence that Enstrom has failed to meet ‘department minimums,’ that such standards even exist, or that any other research professor has been treated as Enstrom has, all signs are that UCLA has been retaliating against him in violation of his rights," Kissel said. "UCLA has quite a long way to go to demonstrate that such outrageous treatment of one of its longest-serving faculty members is both legal and moral. FIRE and the public are watching."

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 212-582-3191; [email protected]
Gene D. Block, Chancellor, University of California, Los Angeles: 310-825-2151; [email protected]